Anthony Gray Clock Repair and Restoration

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The story of the English bracket clock begins in1657…midway between the execution of Charles I and the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II, this date marks the first commercial application of the pendulum to a clock.

Although the event is strictly attributable to the Dutch scientist Christian Huygens, it was in England under the direction of such Horological luminaries as Thomas Tompion and Daniel Quare that the idea was most fully and rapidly developed, so much so that by 1680 English Clockmaking had reached a position of such pre-eminence as to remain unchallenged for another hundred years. It is the beautiful and skilfully crafted bracket clocks of this period that to this day remain amongst the most sought after (and the most expensive) of all clocks

The term ‘bracket clock’, rather misleadingly, implies that clocks of this type were made to sit on a bracket which was mounted on the wall. Very often this is quite true and many bracket clocks, particularly those of French origin, were supplied with their own matching bracket…more often thought he clock was not designed to have any fixed position and would almost certainly have been moved around from room to room.

The invention of the pendulum (or more strictly the application of it) had a very profound influence on both the external appearance of clocks and on the construction of their movements. Prior to 1657, bracket clocks (also longcase clocks) simply did not exist. The introduction of the pendulum offered the possibility of ‘accurate’ timekeeping and also necessitated the use of much finer and more delicate wheel work than had formerly been employed in the earlier lantern and table clocks. To protect this delicate mechanism, it was considered necessary to house it in an enclosed wooden case as a protection against dust etc. This posed a problem for the clockmaker who, though highly skilled in his own craft, usually had little or no grounding in the intricacies of woodworking, so this aspect of the work was now handed over to the joiner or casemaker. The joiner was invariably a trained furniture maker, so it follows that clock cases started to assume the stylistic appearance of the furniture of the period. This accounts for the stunning craftsmanship and the beauty of many bracket clock cases.

The earlier attribution of the pendulum to Christian Huygens takes us into what is in truth a rather grey area; both Galileo and the astronomer Johan Hevel are known to have experimented with pendulums and in fact a whole string of people laid claim to this invention. What we do know is that Huygens was the first person to commercially exploit the idea in connection with a clock, and in 1657 he assigned his rights in the matter together with his design for a pendulum clock to one Samuel Coster, a skilled clockmaker from The Hague who actually produced versions of this clock. Two of them are still extant and can be seen at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and The Time Museum in Rockford Illinois. These are probably the earliest surviving examples of a bracket clock.

Although he earliest bracket clocks, including those by Samuel Coster, were designed such that both the striking and the going train were driven by one single spring, it soon became accepted practice to use a separate spring for each wheel train and for the first time the two trains were placed side by side. In the manner familiar to us today, it thus became possible to key wind both trains through holes in the front of the dial.

The first clocks usually had cases in the ‘architectural’ style, the carcass made of oak and maybe veneered in tortoiseshell with ebony mouldings. In the plinth, or base of the case, a drawer would be provided to hold the winding key. The relatively plain dial centre was engraved with a central rosette and the time read from a narrow silvered chapter ring. The hour hand would be of a simple but finely crafted spade design and the triangular spaces outside the chapter ring filled with finely cast and chiselled ‘cherubs’ head’ spandrels. In the finest examples these spandrels were occasionally made from solid silver. In early examples the maker’s name was always engraved at the bottom of the dial and employed the use of Latin. A clock by the well known maker Joseph Knibb (circa 1680-90) would thus be inscribed ‘Joseph Knibb Londini Fecit’.

Another interesting feature, occasionally found on early bracket clocks, is the engraving on the chapter ring of every single minute from 0 to 60. People had not been accustomed to telling the time with ‘two hands’ (earlier types of clock employed only a single hour hand) and this was intended to assist in the process. This feature, although interesting, is rare, and not something that you are likely to come across in your local auction room ! It was discontinued in about 1675 and it then became the practice to engrave the figures for every fifth minute only.

The earlier type of architectural case design which included a pediment on top of the case and pillars at each corner, soon gave was to the well known ‘bell’ or dome shaped top; this also allowed for the provision of a carrying handle for the clock, a feature not previously in evidence. Overall case design became simpler, discarding corner pillars in favour of a plain flat door right across the front of the clock. The top rail of the door was usually pierced in a fine fretwork pattern and then backed with silk to assist in hearing the strike of the clock. Another common feature was two key hole escutcheons, one to embellish the key hole, and a corresponding dummy on the other side to give a decorative balance.

Right from the outset, nearly all bracket clocks were devised to run for eight days, and also to strike the hours. This latter feature, something which today we might take for granted, often presented the early clockmaker with considerable difficulty…the spring to drive the striking train had to be made entirely by hand (beaten to length and thickness from a single strip of steel). Both the length and strength required to drive a striking train for eight days was thus a difficult achievement. The famous clockmaker Joseph Knibb devised a novel method of economising on the power requirements of this spring by devising something called ‘Roman Striking’. This system required the use of two bells of different pitch and size; any part of a number represented by the Roman numeral I was struck on the small bell and the Roman numeral V on the large bell (X was considered to be two times V). Thus to strike eleven (XI), the clock would sound two strokes on the large bell and one on the small bell. (A total of only three strokes instead of the eleven which would be heard in a conventional strike)> I must again point out that you are unlikely to find one of these clocks in your local junk shop ! They are exceedingly rare, highly prized by serious collectors and when they do appear, mindbogglingly expensive.

To the reader who wanted a potted history of the bracket clock, and wonders why there is no mention of the likes of Dent or Vulliamy, my apologies for not yet having gone further than 1680 ! This will be remedied in the next article, but the period which has been discussed here is of profound importance in terms of English Clockmaking and very much set the ground rules for the next hundred years and beyond. This was the era of Thomas Tompion, Edward east, and Joseph Knibb to mention just three of the then famous makers, whose names remain to this day a byword for excellence, quality and beauty of the highest possible order.